Music plays a major role in the life of former President of the USA Barack Obama. After publishing his autobiography, he shares a playlist with songs that inspired him during his presidency. The list varies from Aretha Franklin, Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder, to the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and U2. These artists move within a broad spectrum of musical genres: soul, jazz, blues, rock, hip-hop, folk rock and country & western.
The fact that Obama adds a music list to his book is a wonderful gesture in itself. After four years of radio silence from the White House about art and all the other beautiful things, it’s a relief to realize that things used to be different and that America once had a president who shared his love of music. And who organised music nights in the White House.
Most of the songs on this list have a positive approach, hopeful lyrics and uplifting music. I knew that Obama loved gospel and soul. He once surprised friend and foe by starting to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ halfway through a speech in Charleston, where he paid his last respects to the killed Reverend Clementa Pinckney. That Aretha Franklin is on the list is no surprise. And that Stevie Wonder and Beyoncé are even twice on the list was to be expected. What’s more, Obama not only honoured two jazz musicians on this list, but two very good ones as well: Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
Most artists on the list are American. Europe might have been the cradle of classical music, America gave birth to jazz, soul and gospel. It is not entirely coincidental that these are black musical genres. For black artists it was not easy to break through to a large audience. White vocalists who brought a more polished version of this music on television often had more success than the artists who had invented it. It is therefore remarkable that Obama chose for Frank Sinatra but ignored Ella Fitzgerald and that he preferred the white hip-hop artist Eminem to Kendrick Lamar.
In that respect, it is interesting to take a look at Michelle Obama’s list. Two years ago she wrote her autobiography which included a playlist as well. Her choices were sharper than Barack’s: Questlove, Janelle Monáe, Prince, Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, the Notorious B.I.G., TLC and Kendrick Lamar. Compared to his wife’s list, Barack opts for a much safer middle way.
Talking about Michelle: Obama was a special president in showing the love for his wife in public. That he added The Beatles’ Michelle in his playlist is another example of this. The song was written by Paul McCartney, who sang it for the First Lady in the White House in 2010. So it has become her song as well.
Stevie Wonder: Sir Duke